Foundry Poses Potential Risk for Proposed School in South Gate, Study Says

Times Staff Writer

A foundry next to the proposed site of South Gate Regional High School probably poses a health threat to students, Los Angeles Unified School District officials have been told.

A consulting firm hired to evaluate air quality at the site told district officials last week that fine-particle pollution from Universal Cast Iron Manufacturing Co. might cause permanent damage to the lungs of students. The consulting firm, IFC Technology of Universal City, added, however, that air at the site did not present an increased risk of cancer above that which already exists from breathing "typical Los Angeles air."

The 41.7-acre site in an industrial area of South Gate east of Atlantic Avenue has been the subject of the most intensive environmental study in the school district's history.

According to Robert Niccum, director of real estate, the district is prepared to spend more than $300,000 to evaluate air, soil and water quality and other environmental factors before acquiring the site. So far only the air quality has been assessed.

School for 2,000 Students

The district hopes to build a regional high school on the site for 2,000 or more students from South Gate, Bell and Cudahy, which have some of the most crowded schools in the district. The site may also be used for Tweedy Elementary School, which was closed and moved to temporary quarters in South Gate Park last year because of pollution problems.

The discovery that emissions from the foundry are unhealthful means the district will probably have to decide whether it wants to take over the foundry site or start looking for another site.

The site under consideration is bounded by Wood Avenue on the north. The boundary runs south on Burtis Street to Tweedy Boulevard, west on Tweedy to Adella Avenue, south on Adella to the alley behind Aldrich Road and west to Atlantic. The post office on Chakemco Street is excluded from the site.

The foundry is on a 12.6-acre parcel of land south of Tweedy and east of Adella.

According to Niccum, the district had originally considered the industrial site because it was virtually the only one the district could find in the area that would not require displacing large numbers of residents. Occupants of 63 dwellings would be displaced by the current building plan, Niccum said. If done in a residential area, a project of this scope could easily displace the occupants of about 300 homes, he noted.

Block-by-Block Survey

At the request of the Board of Education's building committee, Niccum's office is conducting a block-by-block survey of South Gate in hopes of finding an alternative site.

The fact that the district is even considering a site that it knew from the outset to be problematical in terms of environmental safety is evidence of the difficulty of finding places for schools in today's Los Angeles. The days when a new school could always be built "nested in among a bunch of friendly houses," perhaps in a former orange grove, are long gone, Niccum said. "Now if you want a school in the middle of houses, you have to take out some of the houses."

The new regional high school was originally expected to cost $40 million to $50 million. Niccum estimated the added cost of acquiring and relocating Universal Cast Iron at $9 million to $12 million.

Roger Hutchinson, a spokesman for South Gate industries and businesses that want to remain on the proposed site, said he doubted the aging foundry would be welcome in any other community in California, given current environmental protection standards. He estimated the cost to the district of buying out the firm at $50 million.

More Respiratory Irritation

In the consultants' view, air quality near the foundry is sufficiently poor that average students attending the proposed schools over a period of time would probably experience more bronchitis, colds, sneezing and respiratory irritation than students in areas with less polluted air. The fine particles released into the air by the foundry could also lead to irreversible lung damage.

The study said that air quality at the site without the foundry "would be only slightly worse than what is experienced in the rest of the city." Without the foundry, the report noted, the average student on the South Gate site might have a slightly higher incidence of colds and other respiratory ailments. Asthmatic and other sensitive students would probably have more respiratory problems than usual, but even sensitive students were not likely to suffer permanent ill effects, the report predicted.

The report complicates what has been from the start an unusually complex decision-making process. Since study of the site began last year, the district has asked for periodic reports from the evaluators so it could immediately begin looking elsewhere if the site were found to be unacceptable.

The district had hoped to open the new high school in 1991. Should the proposed site be abandoned, Niccum estimated it would take five months "to get where we are now" after a new site was identified.

'Doubtful' Acceptability

School board member Rita Walters said the health finding made her "feel even less comfortable with the site than I did before." In her view, the site is now of "doubtful" acceptability.

Board member Warren Furutani, who represents South Gate, said he was not "tremendously alarmed" about the finding, given the poor quality of air in the area as a whole. "It's something we are going to investigate to the fullest," he said. But, he added, "we are not pulling the plug."

"It brings us back to the bottom line," Furutani said. In his view, the critical question is whether the area needs a new school. "And the answer," he said, "is, 'Yes, we do.' "

The building committee plans to consider the matter again Aug. 11 at district headquarters downtown.

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